JM Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus, Harvill Secker, 2013 (Review published in Cape Times, 22 March 2013)
In “A House in Spain”, a ‘story’ by JM Coetzee in Architectural Digest (2000), a protagonist crabbily considers the inflated language by which people define their relationships with objects, e.g. to fall “in love” with a house. In that rarefied mixture of autobiography and fiction that JM Coetzee has made his own, this man (perhaps Coetzee?), who has bought a house in Spain, realises that his fastidiousness about the slackness of such language hides “the envy of a man grown too old, too rigid, to ever fall in love”. This is so because he finds that the house he has bought occupies his mind when he is not in Spain. Details of the house – of its identity – occupy his thoughts and he starts thinking of the house as if it were analogous to a woman. His attentions in fixing the house assume the modalities of love, where previously he had considered ownership of property as simply functional.
There is enough autobiographical information in the story to suggest that the protagonist is a version of Coetzee. At the same time, the competing forces of different truths – in autobiography, in fiction – have been one of Coetzee’s own enduring intellectual preoccupations, so that Coetzee autobiography can be as enigmatic as Coetzee fiction. But I refer to “A House in Spain” because his new novel, The Childhood of Jesus, is set in “Spain” and the protagonist, Simón, seems similarly crabby. And so one looks for the autobiographical in the fiction. Not for the plots and crude facts that one can graft onto the real life of the writer for the reader’s prurient confirmation, but for the parallel situations that spur the protagonist/s to discourse on their preoccupations, for the facts that make the writer’s fictions and autobiographies.
A refugee from somewhere unknown, Simón has been given this name by the functionaries at a refugee camp and he is urged, like all refugees here, to forget his past. In this new place, where everybody, especially the bureaucrats, behave with dull decency and goodwill, Simón reacts against such denatured living. Passion is what he is looking for.
With Simón is a boy who was also given a new name: Davíd (all refugees are given new names). Simón has ended up, by happenstance, as a guardian to Davíd, the boy having travelled unaccompanied and having lost a letter which identifies his mother. Simón has promised Davíd to help him find his mother, a promise which is a keystone to Simón’s ethics. In this new place, the bureaucrats are kind, decent, helpful (even if the help often leads Simón and Davíd up the garden path), but their systems come across, nevertheless, as less than humane – lifeless. It is a place full of worthiness, but it fails to recognise what Simón considers worthy: keeping his promise. When Simón asks a friendly bureaucrat, Anna, to give him access to registers so he can trace Davíd’s mother, Anna shows him the futility of the task, in the dull and decent bureaucratic logic of the bizarre utopia in which they find themselves. Here, no one cares about the past and the bureaucracy is built on ridding people of “old attachments”. People have been “washed clean”, as, moments later, Anna will tell Davíd to tell Simón that he has been washed clean.
So dogged is Simón in keeping his promise that he will fulfil it even if by fiction. He will later convince a woman, Ynes, that she is Davíd’s mother, a role she takes up with eventual conviction. So much so, in fact, that she rescues Davíd from the education authorities when they want to send him to a school for rebellious and delinquent children. By now Simón and Ynes have become convinced that there is something special about Davíd. When the boy gets into trouble at school, they are quick to take his side, even to believe his version of events when reality clearly contradicts him. In short, they have faith in his fictions. Eventually, the three of them set off in a car, heading north towards a place called Estrellita (little star, feminine).
Since his youth, the Coetzee who has bought a house in Spain “has had a fondness for Spain”, but his “bookish” Castilian marks him as an outsider to the Catalonian locals of Bellpuig. “What he hopes for, and what he gets, is toleration.” He tries to meld in with the village, using the same colour paints for the house, planting, like his neighbours, geraniums in terra-cotta pots beside the front door. But as much as he wants to disappear, he also wants to leave a mark of sorts. Moreover, unlike his functional relationships with previous property, here “he hopes that in some sense the house itself will bear the memory of him” (“House”).
When is the outsider no longer an outsider? The foreman of the stevedores among whom Simón finds work early on, remarks on Simón’s apologetic, halting Spanish: “As for your Spanish, don’t worry, persist. One day it will cease to feel like a language, it will become the way things are.”
In its quietly compelled probing at the borders of human life – what is it to be a refugee in a place that nurtures an overwhelming, all-encompassing semblance of decency yet bears little of the substantively human with its contradictions and waywardness, with its passions and blind faith? – The Childhood of Jesus is signature Coetzee.* But whereas in books like Life and Times of Michael K and Waiting for the Barbarians the outsider is set against systems of malicious intent, in Childhood this opposition is set against an anodyne world – or, at least, a world where systems that process people, specifically refugees, are evidently decent, even as they are the shucked shells of humanist discourse. The novel may well be a meditation on what might happen were Jesus to be a child refugee in the European Union. But then again, it’s a Coetzee fiction – only, marvellously so.
* For some inexplicable reason this sentence was sub-edited to: “In its quietly compelled probing at the borders of human life, what is it to be a refugee in a place that nurtures an overwhelming, all-encompassing semblance of decency yet bears little of the substantively human with its contradictions and waywardness, with its passions and blind faith?// The Childhood of Jesus is signature Coetzee.” The title was changed to “What would Jesus have done?”